Improvising Music on the Drum Set

The drum set is not typically a solo instrument, so I find it challenging when I have the opportunity to play improvised pieces in this area. It’s a kind of playing that requires confidence and sensitivity where the outcome is a reflection of the sum of my musical skills and sensibilities. The context will usually determine what I play. In situations where there’s a need for atmospheric music, I’ll develop a loose compositional structure. If I’m playing for a dancer who is improvising, their movements inspire the things I play. Occasionally, I’ll take a more of a narrative approach, where I try to take the listener on a musical journey.

As I begin a piece, I try not to be too judgmental about the first sounds that come out, I have to allow time for things to develop. The process involves establishing musical parameters such as tempo, meter, repetition, contrasting timbres, changing dynamics and musical style. I try and create musical consonance and dissonance by juxtaposing musical extremes and the shades that lie between them. I play phrases that are smooth and connected and contrast them with ones that are more disjointed or angular. I can also do this by changing between playing in strict time and free or irregular time or setting sections that are polyrhythmic against parts that are built on simple rhythms.

Yesterday, in a sparsely lit performance space, I created over a dozen short drumming pieces for improvised dance solos that were done by the students in a modern dance class. I was set up in the rear corner of the space, and the students and the instructor sat in a row of bleachers, which were situated beneath a set of lights. Each dancer came up to my drum set to acknowledge that they were ready to begin. A few of the students whispered their musical preferences: a funky beat, something tribal, a nice groove, play slow and full, or nothing too loud or crazy. At the end their dance they returned to me to signal that we were done.

As I constructed the pieces I tried to make each contrast to the one that preceded it. I used drumsticks, brushes, timpani mallets, and my hands to create varying sounds. I sometimes played only the cymbals or just the drums. I also played the two types of sounds together in varying combinations. There were also two hand drums to my left, which I used sporadically. In one instance I limited my sound choices to the floor, the small movable wooden riser that the drums were set up on, and the metallic cymbal stands.

My recent experience was challenging and rewarding. Overall the dancers seemed to appreciate my contributions to their improvisations. The dancers who had experience in this type of moving before danced with abandon. I feel that my drumming help to launch them and carry them through space. For the students who were not quite as comfortable moving this, I think that my playing made it easier for them to explore their creativity.

I should play in this format more often. It’s very different the role of sideman, which I usually play in. Luckily, as a dance accompanist, I get to do this kind of playing.

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